U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Just Asking…

This week I was invited to speak at a wonderfully thoughtful interdisciplinary graduate symposium put on by the Syracuse University Religion Department’s Graduate Organization on the topic of “Creativity, Transformation, and Public Life.” Here are some of the questions it raised (from its poster):

“Can we translate the transformations of self and society we hope to effect into our teaching and our moral and political lives? What are the relationships between the specific ‘methods’ of our disciplines, the kind of subjects we become in pursuit of them, and the kind of society we desire?”

My answer to the first question: I truly hope so. And as for the relationships among our approach to our work, our own selfhood, and our ideals: as close as they can possibly be.

It is exciting to hear these questions raised at all in an academic setting, and especially refreshing that the assumption is that our professional pursuits make us into certain sorts of beings. A fellow faculty panelist noted that, surprisingly, this kind of conversation was very rare in the university today.

I was faced with the rather daunting task of summing up my thoughts on these questions, the answers to which lie at the root of the deep dissatisfaction, disappointment, and worry I share with many of you about the state of the humanities, universities, and intellectual life today. As I gathered my thoughts together, I found myself musing more and more about the recent post here by Paul Murphy, President of S-USIH, “Professional Societies in an Age of Academic Transformation,” which is “President’s Column” for the Fall 2012 issue of the S-USIH Notes, the Society’s newsletter.

I found this post so inspiring for its capacious sensibility, all too rare today, which can at once balance why and how we might care so deeply about preserving particular practices of the past at the same time as embracing the best new possibilities, going forward. I’d just like to quote some favorite parts here:

“We have been in a national conversation about the future of education at all levels for a number of years now.  For those in higher education, this has meant wrenching debates about the professoriate, the future of public education, and the nature of a university education itself.  We who are professors may have reached a peak of discomfort with the latest round of high-tech start-ups in online university education, garbed as they are with the democratic promise of universally available quality education although bearing, too, the promise that the key to efficiencies and cost savings in higher education may finally be in the grasp of knowledge industry executives.  We begin to feel like E. P. Thompson’s weavers, confronted with the grim logic of technological innovation and needful again of the advice of the Assistant Commissioner for the West Riding, delivered in 1840:  ‘…warn them to flee from the trade, and to beware of leading their children into it, as they would beware the commission of the most atrocious of crimes.’

…This conversation ought to be of intense interest to the Society for U.S. Intellectual History because the transformation of the modes and manners of academic life is of necessity the transformation of American intellectual life as well, given the extent to which intellectuals are ensconced in academia.

…Will S-USIH breathe new life into an old form, or ought it to be something else entirely?

…As a reflexive and obdurate traditionalist in many ways (who has spent part of my academic career studying even more cranky versions of this type), I find it puzzling to be in the position of advocating a move away from the red-brick, ivy-covered college of my imagination.  I can see, however, that I neither work in such a setting nor do I imagine that it exists in many places anymore.  Though I will clutter my home with cloth- and paperbound books to my dying day, we need to think of how we preserve the essential goals of academic professional societies of the past for the future:  Creating communities of scholars that are real and durable and fostering scholarship based on respectful but rigorous standards of self-criticism.  We think we are doing this by leveraging the internet in a way that brings us together as scholars in conferences, by fostering a widely read blog that reaches beyond academia, and, now, too, by creating such things at the Annual Book Award (the first of which will be awarded next year) that allow us to celebrate accomplished scholarship.  We have further goals, to embrace the full diversity of intellectual life in our past and broaden and make more inclusive the dialogue about that past in the present.  In this, we try to do what professional societies of the past have done.  However, professional societies have also served as adjuncts to the universities, helping in the credentialing process, designing and erecting barriers to entry into the field, laying out norms, channeling discussions into academic forums, and patrolling the borders of what is legitimate (and, in this way, achieving legitimacy for a specific field).  Are these latter tasks fruitful any longer?”

As in the case of the graduate symposium, it is often in the very questions we raise that our answers lie.